Language: English

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week, we’re talking about poetry in Transylvania, storytelling in Marrakech, and LGBT literature in Taipei.

It would be difficult for even the most hardened of cynics to bemoan the state of literature after having read the news coming from around the globe this week. Our editors report on a stunning international festival of poetry in Transylvania, the determined literary representation of an “unofficial” language in Morocco, and an abundance of musical, literary, and theatrical events taking place under the open skies of Taipei.

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the Z9Festival in Sibiu, Romania

The forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain, but the sun was still wispily gathered in the early evening, so rows were laid out in the courtyard and the fifth edition of Z9Festival, the young literature festival based in Sibiu, began.

Founded in 2015 and sponsored by the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, the festival gathers poets from nine countries around the world to share their work with the Romanian public; the name can be read as either New Zone or Zone Nine, in an ode to both its focus on writers under forty and its international reach. So it is that in mid-July 2019, writers from the UK, Poland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, and Romania descended upon the picturesque landscape of Sibiu to join one another in a night celebrating poetry, and its inherent ability to dissipate borders.

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The Summer 2019 Issue Is Here!

Dive into new work from 30 countries!

Wake up where the clouds are far with Asymptote’s Summer 2019 edition—“Dreams and Reality” brings you stunning vistas from 30 countries, including new fiction from Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, an exclusive interview with Edith Grossman, translator of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and never-before-published translations of Nicole Brossard, recent winner of Canada’s Lifetime Griffin Trust Award for Poetry. In our Special Feature on Yiddish writing, published with the generous support from the Yiddish Book Center, you’ll find everything from Isaac Berliner’s dreams of ancient South America to Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s modern-day America.

In Leonardo Sanhueza’s retelling of intimate life before, during, and after Chile’s Civil War, each poem an unforgettable portrait of a colonist, dreams are harbingers of death. In “A Rainy Tuesday,” Bijan Najdi’s nonlinear journey of grief, on the other hand,  dreams are bulwarks against the almost certain demise of missing loved ones. When the veil breaks, the real returns. Internationally acclaimed Korean poet Kim Hyesoon tackles the reality of violence head-on in her latest collection, reviewed by Matt Reeck. For artist Jorge Wellesley, the emptiness of slogans lies exposed in images of rotting, blurred, or blank billboards. In a candid essay, Fausto Alzati Fernández confesses to the rituals of drug addiction, some of which attempt “to grab hold of reality and strip it.”

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Translation Tuesday: Three Poems by Zackary Sholem Berger

The night sings in my arms. / It’s bedtime, flesh-and-blood.

The newest issue of Asymptote is coming out this Thursday, and in anticipation of our special Yiddish Poetry Feature, we bring you three poems from poet and translator Zackary Sholem Berger. Translated from the Yiddish, these poems are inventive and playful even as they explore serious and philosophical themes.

Guilty

This bird in town

Eyes me up and down:

My sin is known

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Intricacies Through Imagination: The Book of Cairo in Review

The Book of Cairo invites us to this very complex city without committing the crime of exoticizing it.

book of cairo

The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, translated from the Arabic by multiple translators, Comma Press, 2019

The Book of Cairo, A City in Short Fiction, edited by Raph Cormack, is the newest addition to the “Reading the City” series published by Comma Press (Manchester, UK), collecting stories by local authors from cities around the world. Each story in the book (like those of the other books in the series) is translated into English by a different translator, which makes the book even more multi-vocal, introducing readers to not only writers, but also to translators working from a particular language into English, in this case Arabic.

The stories (except for one) were originally published between 2013 and 2018, making them of the present time and place, and giving us access into the current literary scene of Cairo. The authors are all born in the late 1970s and the ’80s, which makes them part of the young, hopeful generation who took part in the Tahrir Square protests, who made the Arab Spring possible, and who imagined a different future for their country. And it is through the diverse, imagined worlds in the present collection that they investigate the present moment of a city mutually rooted in history and moving toward the future.

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Haim Nachman Bialik 

There is Love in the world, they say. / Love—what is it?

This week features the Hebrew language poetry of Haim Nachman Bialik, a poet and cultural leader who influenced twentieth century Hebrew and Yiddish poetry like few others. Bialik’s commitment to innovation in stylistic Hebrew comes across in these skillful translations, which carry emotion upon a poignant succession of nouns that cover a stirring breadth of emotion in relatively few words. Verdant religious language is foiled by a personal lack. Yearning, the language evokes a sense of constantly thwarted arrival met with evacuation. Yet, the poems brim with hope for the future, foregrounding the hope which gives meaning to the barren condition of the present. Bialik remains the national poet of Israel.

Drops a Sprig in Silence

Drops a sprig in silence
To the fence.
Like him,
I’m mute. Shorn of fruit,
Estranged from branch and tree.
Shorn of fruit, the flower
Memory forgotten,
The leaves do sway,
Sure victims for the gale to slay.
Then the nights do come.
The nightmare—
The gall—
I thrash about in the dark,
I knock my head against the wall.
And spring will come.
Is splendour
A foil
To me, a barren twig,
Which bringeth forth
No fruit, nor flower, nor nill.

Take Me Under Your Wings

Take me under your wings,
Be to me sister and mother.
Let your bosom shelter my head,
Nestle my banished prayers.

Then in twilight, the hour of mercy,
Bend down to me, my anguish I’ll tell thee:
There is Youth in the world, they say.
My youth—where is it?

And another secret I’ll tell:
My soul, it is all burnt out.
There is Love in the world, they say.
Love—what is it?

The stars have all deceived me.
There was a dream, it too has passed.
I have not a thing in the world now.
I have nothing, at last.

Take me under your wings,
Be to me sister and mother.
Let your bosom shelter my head,
Nestle my banished prayers.

Translated from the Hebrew by Dahlia Ephrat 

Haim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), recognized today as the national poet of Israel, wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish. Born in the former Russian Empire, Bialik, who wrote passionately about the persecution of the Jewish people in Russia, moved to Germany and then to Tel Aviv. He had a relationship with Ira Jan, a painter and writer who followed him to Tel Aviv. After his untimely death in surgery, a massive funeral procession mourned down the street which now bears his name, showing his importance as an icon of an emergent Jewish literary movement and a significant cultural leader. During his productive career, Bialik wrote extensively, and his poems are well known to the Israeli public. On top of his poetry and essays, which have now been translated into more than thirty languages and set to music, Bialik translated a book of Talmudic legends called Sefer Ha’agada (The Book of Legends). 

Dahlia Ephrat lives in Tel Aviv, where she was born. She began writing poetry at a young age, and began work as a translator at eighteen. She has translated scores of English language poetry into Hebrew. She remains interested in Hebrew, and embarks on linguistic studies of Hebrew etymology and thought. 

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Read more translations on the Asymptote blog:

Translating Contemporary Tibet: In Conversation with Christopher Peacock

We could say that there isn’t a demand to undermine or challenge our preconceptions of Tibet.

Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock. 

Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.

Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?

Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.

I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Reporting this week with news from Cambridge, New York, and the UK!

The east coast of the US is thriving this summer season with literary news celebrating new publications by Latin American poets in Cambridge, a reading series at the Bryant Park Reading Room, and many more notable events featuring acclaimed authors. Over in the United Kingdom, writers are also lighting up stages and claiming accolades. Our editors are taking you into this literary landscape.

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the USA

On Friday, May 24, the famed Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, MA hosted a book launch for two spectacular volumes of Latin American poetry in translation, both of which were recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse: Materia Prima, by Amanda Berenguer (eds. Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson; reviewed in Asymptote in April 2019) and The Winter Garden Photograph, by Reina María Rodríguez (trans. Kristin Dykstra, with Nancy Gates Madsen). Grolier is truly hallowed ground; located on Plympton Street, around the corner from Harvard Square, this specialty bookstore has been in business since 1927 and boasts a collection of over fifteen thousand poetry titles. The launch of these two books took place off-site during the world’s largest conference of Latin American Studies, the Latin American Studies Association’s annual meeting, which featured over five thousand participants. 

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Creating What One Cannot Find: In Conversation with Deborah Ekoka

Cervantes called Sevilla “the chess board” because there were as many blacks as there were whites.

Today on the blog, podcast editor Layla Benitez-James draws us into the vibrant but seldom-discussed community of Black writers in Spain. In this essay-interview hybrid, she introduces us to two booksellers working to amplify the voices and and experiences of black Spanish writers.

In the past year, I have interviewed three of the panelists from the 2018 Tampa AWP panel sponsored by ALTA, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” for the Asymptote podcast: Lawrence Schimel, John Keene and, Aaron Coleman. My last interview with Coleman gave me a quote which has been rewritten at the beginning of each new journal I’ve started since December as it got at something that I have often felt but never expressed so well: literary translation is a tool to make more vivid the relationships between Afro-descendent people in the Americas and around the world.

I was reminded of the first time I read Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Of course, nothing overlapped with my life exactly, but there was this kind of constant shock and pleasure at recognizing pieces of my identity described by people from places I had never been, a sense of belonging and kinship.

Beyond dictionaries and historical reference works, in my latest projects I have relied heavily on community to understand the context of the text. I moved to Spain in 2014 to work on translation and improve my Spanish. I had fallen in love with the practice after a translation workshop at the University of Houston and started translating the work of Madrid-born and based poet Óscar Curieses. After a teaching placement in the city of Murcia flung me much farther south than I had originally planned, I began to find incredible Murcian poets, like Cristina Morano, Bea Mirales, José Daniel Espejo, and José Óscar López, whose work I wanted to bring into English.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

The glorious fragrance of fresh literary works, hot off the presses from around the world.

It seems that national literatures around the world are shaping their next representatives as we receive further updates of new works by authors from around the globe. From publications by a Guatemalan indie press, to a remarkably young award honouree in Brazil, to a historic list of nominations for the most prestigious literary prizes in Japan, our editors are bringing you a glimpse of what is in yourand your bookshelf’sfuture. 

José García Escobar, Editor-at Large, reporting from Central America 

The biggest book fair in Central America, the Feria Internacional del Libro en Guatemala (FILGUA) is only a few weeks away. And like every year, on the days leading to FILGUA, the Guatemalan indie press Catafixia has been announcing its newest drafts. Mid-July, Catafixia will put out books by Manuel Orestes Nieto (Panama), Jacinta Escudos (El Salvador), and Gonçalo M. Tavares (Angola-Portugal). 

Additionally, this year’s FILGUA marks the tenth anniversary of Catafixia, which has helped launch the careers of poets like Vania Vargas and Julio Serrano Echeverría.

Last month, Costa Rican press los tres editores put out Trayéndolo todo de regreso a casa by Argentine author Patricio Pron, who won the Alfaguara Prize in 2019. los tres editores have previously published books by Luis Chavez, Mauro Libertella, and Valeria Luiselli. 

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Art as Universal Refuge: Ji Yoon Lee on Translating Blood Sisters

We make art so that we don’t forget what our truth is.

This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Kim Yideum’s novel Blood Sisters, raises profound questions about class dynamics, gender roles, and the power of language to uphold existing hierarchies. In today’s interview, translator Ji Yoon Lee talks with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone about the challenging process of recreating the tones and nuances of the original Korean in English. They also discuss the parallels between Korean political narratives of the 1980s and the current discourse in the USA, as well as Lee’s innovative use of Spanish to translate Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”

Jacob Silkstone (JS): Referring to her work as a whole, Kim Yideum has said (in your translation) that “A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system.” It feels to me as though there’s an echo of that statement when the protagonist of Blood Sisters says, “I speak with my own mouth, so I will address others on my own terms. . .”Could you say a little about that “default system” that Kim Yideum’s work struggles against? Are there any aspects of the struggle that feel unique to Korea?

Ji Yoon Lee (JYL): I absolutely see the echo there, too. Specifically, the protagonist, Yeoul, is resisting: in Korea, we often address people by the role that they play in our lives, such as “teacher,” “president of the company,” “older lady,” and so on. Once intimacy develops, there is a shift in the form of address, often towards familial terms, even when you are not related: “older brother,” “older sister,” and so on. That is meant to make people feel a closer connection beyond the societal roles they play for one another.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Get close up and personal with global literary happenings.

Let language be free! This week, our editors are reporting on a myriad of literary news including the exclusion of Persian/Farsi language services on Amazon Kindle, the vibrant and extensive poetry market in Paris, a Czech book fair with an incredibly diverse setlist, and a poetry festival in São Paolo that thrills in originality. At the root of all these geographically disparate events is one common cause: that literature be accessible, inclusive, and for the greater good. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large, reporting from New York City

Iranians have faced many ups and downs over the years in their access to international culture and information services, directly or indirectly as a result of sanctions; these have included limitations for publishers wanting to secure copyrights, membership services for journals or websites, access to phone applications, and even postal services for the delivery of goods, including books.

In a recent event, according to Radio Farda, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing stopped providing Persian/Farsi language services for direct publishing in November 2018. (You can find a list of supported languages here.) This affects many Iranian and Afghan writers and readers who have used the services as a means to publish and access literature free of censorship. Many speculate that this, while Arabic language services are still available, is due to Amazon wanting to avoid any legal penalties related to the latest rounds of severe sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Friendship, solidarity, and freedom: this week, our editors present literary news under the banner of liberation.

Borders fade into the background during literary festivals and book fairs in Spain, El Salvador, and Kosovo this week as our editors report on an increasing resolve to disregard distance in honouring literature, gathering readers, publishers, and writers from around the world. Madrid glows with a rich festival of poetry, history is made in El Salvador as its first multilingual online literary publication is unveiled, and Kosovo pays tribute to women artists and writers in its capital. 

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain 

A rowdy concert, out-of-control house party, or public protest are what come to mind when I think about the police showing up to a gathering in Madrid. However, it was a poetry reading whose audience had spilled out onto the street in front of bookshop Desperate Literature which brought them to give a warning on a warm Tuesday night on May 28.

Over the past two years, I have become involved with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid, first by doing some introductions for the more or less monthly reading series, and eventually becoming their Director of Literary Outreach as we began to make plans to launch Madrid’s first ever anglophone poetry festival. A grassroots and volunteer outfit from the beginning, the series started by accident on March 27, 2012 when poet and Episcopal priest, Spencer Reece, held what was intended to be a “one-off” reading on the patio of the Catedral del Redentor for Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. In partnership with bookseller and co-founder/co-manager of Desperate Literature Terry Craven, and scholar Elizabeth Moe, Reece was unaware that the series would eventually evolve into the packed and vibrant Unamuno Poetry Festival. In the end, the week of May 27 through June 1, 2019 would see eighty readings spread across five venues, including a lecture series hosted in the historic Residencia de Estudiantes, where Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel all lived and studied. Taking place in the mornings, these panels counted poet Mark Doty, Laura García-Lorca (niece of Federico García- Lorca), and local Madrid native poet Óscar Curieses among their ranks, alongside many others. 

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Transporting Poetry Across Borders: On Teaching Ethnographic Poetry in Japan

With its multiple writing systems, Japanese seemed to lend itself particularly well to the task of writing multilingual poems.

Educator’s Guides are published alongside each issue of Asymptote and include detailed lesson plans that can be used with students of literature, language, or writing. The Asymptote website has additional audiovisual materials, translator and author bios, and works in the original language, making it a valuable educational resource. The most recent issue of the Educator’s Guide can be found on the Asymptote for Educators page.

This article describes the lesson plan Language in Transit: Understanding Ethnographic Poetry from the Asymptote Summer 2018 Educator’s Guide. The piece, from House to House, consists of two poems, “House to House” and “Barjeel,” both of which were written and translated by Shamma Al Bastaki. These poems are part of her undergraduate senior project based on interviews she conducted with people living in the United Arab Emirates. Although she has translated the poems into English, some words or phrases are transliterated, while others are left untranslated and remain in the original languages. From the translator’s note, we discover more about the role of language in the piece:

. . . it is a project about language: language in translation, language as bearer of meaning and medium for story telling, language as a catalyzer of communion and communication, language as sound and a series of phonetics, and language as physical material, existent for its own sake.

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Francisco Layna Ranz

If there’s any heart left to swear on, I do it to sue for innocence.

To write seems a common salve for grief, and in this week’s Translation Tuesday, we’re reminded of why, in times of darkness, we turn to the written word for solace. Francisco Layna Ranz’s words are rife with the sharpness of new sorrow, clean and stark, yet with a keen eye he turns toward the motion that is an inevitable consequence of living. With language we may continue, and the action of admittance in poetry is a good thing, a good thing that results from continuing.

A Friend’s Son Died

A friend’s son died.
I pay my respects.
It’s Tuesday, cold between the stones, and I come back by Daroca Avenue.
Brick wall.
The bricks always look old. I don’t know: I think I’d start smoking again if I could.
It’s also too soon for sound. The proof is in the frost on the weeds and garbage.
It’s a question of innocence in the reading of what happens: soon and late
are words of now.
And all I can do is babble excuses for what’s left of my life, and everybody else’s life.
Of course a written letter is a sign that you’re getting old. For paper and for you it’s already much too late.
I know it makes no sense, but maybe I should go back to that crematorium and stay for what’s left of the morning.
Sitting on those benches, thinking of nothing.
Hear the traffic and think of nothing, the way the cold does.

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